On Friday night, the United Rugby Championship made its debut on South African shores as the Sharks faced off against the Blue Bulls down in Durban. The local derbies were pushed forward after the postponement of fixtures against the Northern sides due to the discovery of the Omicron variant lead to a rush for teams to return home.
The Sharks v Bulls proved to be a special occasion for two reasons. The 1st being that for the first time since Super Rugby was called off in early 2020, the domestic game was flooded with Springboks. The return of the international stars got fans buzzing as the likes of Kolisi, Am, Mapimpi were added to the Sharks backline among other. In total, Fridays fixture saw 14 capped Springboks take the field, with a further 5 uncapped squad members in the mix too.
Very few expected to see the Springbok personnel in the mix after a long and grueling international season, but their inclusion was a masterstroke. The SA sides had struggled in the URC up to now, facing a new competition with depleted squads posed an immense challenge. The injection of the big names brought the attraction back and the quality of rugby displayed in this fixture will have helped to grow interest in the game.
The second reason it was so special was the return of fans. They were limited in numbers but you could see how much it meant to both the players and the fans to get a taste of the action live again. The players took time to pose for photos, sign autographs and soak in a bit of the atmosphere, something we've seriously been missing over the last two years. Hopefully as vaccination compliance increases, bigger crowds will be in attendance when the tournament resumes early next year.
Ultimately the Sharks came out victorious 30 - 16 in a tough encounter, with Lukhanyo Am stealing both a crucial intercept for a try and man of the match to boot. He did all this whilst captaining the side from the unfamiliar 12 channel, showing his class no matter where he is on the pitch. Cornal Hendricks also put in a solid showing and continues to push his cause for Bok honor again.
On the younger side, Sharks flyhalf Boeta Chamberlain continues to grow in his new role and reveled in the chance to play alongside the returning Springboks. He will continue to grow and develop in the coming months and if he manages to maintain his level of composure, could soon find himself as an understudy at Springbok level, a position that crucially needs depth ahead of France 2023.
It was also great to see some of the older legends out on the pitch, with the likes of Ruan Pienaar, Morne Steyn, Bismarck du Plessis (class of '09) looking like they hadn't aged at all. Whilst they may not hold Springbok ambitions anymore, it is great to see them giving back to South African Rugby and helping to grow the next generation of players. It was also the chance for Bongi Mbonambi to make his first appearance for the Sharks after completing the move from the Cape earlier in the year.
Friday night's game was the perfect way to close down the 2021 rugby calendar and would have given a timely reminder to the URC organizers and investors that the four SA sides included in the competition have a lot to offer when their Boks are available. All that is needed now, is better alignment with the International season to bring the competition to life in its entirety.